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The Coming of the Maori

From Thatch to Corrugated Iron

From Thatch to Corrugated Iron

Maori architecture survived for a considerable period after European settlement. The material did not cost money and Maori builders continued to ply their craft. The whare puni with its sunken earthen floor was the common dormitory in the days of my youth but material had begun to change. Sawn timber and corrugated iron had begun to intrude and fluted boards were even replacing the reed wall-panels, some being painted to represent the cross stitches of the tukutuku designs. The Department of Health, after 1900, began a campaign through the Maori Health Councils against the sunken floor and the windowless back walls. The meeting houses were reconditioned to meet the requirements of the heath by-laws. Holes were reluctantly pierced on either side of the rear ridgepost and glass windows inserted for ventilation. Raised floors were added in spite of the complaints of the aged against cold. Families that could afford it, built board houses in front of the whare puni and installed bedsteads and pakeha furniture. During the day, the board house impressed the law but at night, the old people stretched out snug on the earthen floor of the beloved whare puni at the back. In remote country villages, as pointed out by Firth (38), the pataka storehouses still existed though modified in form and material. However, the ties with the past weakened with each generation and the whare puni, cooking house, and storehouse on piles are being replaced by board houses with bedrooms, kitchen, and storeroom under one corrugated iron roof.

Tribal meeting houses have continued to function though their form has changed. As the carved houses fell into decay, they were replaced by barn-like structures that aroused no thrill of pride. Leaders yearned for the carved structures of old that would recall tribal prestige but skilled craftsmen survived in but few localities. However, a renaissance took place some twenty odd years ago when, due to much urging by the Maori Members of Parliament led by Sir Apirana Ngata, the Government page 136established a School of Maori Carving at Rotorua. Later it was transferred to Ruatoria on the East Coast Students from various tribes enrolled and graduated as master craftsmen. Carved material for new meeting houses was supplied by the School on order and carved meeting houses rose up in villages which had been drab and desolate. The old gave way to new but the new retained the spirit of the past as shown by one of the new buildings in Te Kaha (plate V). The building retains the gable shape, open porch, and ornamentation in carving, painting, and modern reed work but the stone steps dividing the elaborately carved outer threshold, the raised floor, higher board walls, back windows, roofing material and other accessories mark compliance with modern requirements.

Function, however, remains unchanged though sleeping arrangements have followed the modern trend. The floor is still spread with plaited mats of the best quality but for each guest there is mattress, sheets, and rugs provided from the village community chest. The scattering of village life leaves some of the carved houses standing lone and dejected as if their souls had fled. But when tribal custom assembles the people under the ancestral roof, the soul returns. The guests can still recline at ease as they listen to the oratory of welcome and reply which the passing years have not dulled. To those who can feel the stirring and the throbbing of the past, the graven features of the ancestors along the walls look down and relax into a smile.